Image: U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke and other law enforcement officials in Phoenix
Joshua Lott  /  Reuters
U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, center, discusses raids that recovered weapons from defendants accused of illegally trafficking firearms to Mexican drug cartels on Tuesday at a news conference in Phoenix.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/25/2011 5:03:45 PM ET 2011-01-25T22:03:45

Federal officials say they have new evidence that Mexico's most violent drug cartels are exploiting U.S. guns laws to acquire massive quantities of assault rifles and other firearms for use in their war against the Mexican government.

In an early morning round-up in Arizona, law enforcement agents Tuesday arrested 20 people who are accused of illegally buying hundreds of AK-47s and other firearms at U.S. gun stores. The defendants allegedly acted as "straw purchasers," falsely declaring on federal forms they were purchasing the weapons for themselves, rather than their real clients: the Sinaloa Cartel and other Mexican drug trafficking organizations across the border, the officials said.

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"The massive size of this operation exemplifies the magnitude of the problem — Mexican drug lords go shopping for war weapons in Arizona," said Dennis K. Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, who announced the raids at a press conference in Phoenix.

Story: Firearms from U.S. being used in Mexico drug violence

The raids, along with five accompanying indictments of 34 suspects, are likely to call new attention to the state of U.S. gun laws at a time they have been the subject of mounting debate in recent weeks triggered by the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Jared Loughner is accused of taking advantage of those laws to acquire a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol and at least two high-capacity magazines at an Arizona gun store despite a history of mental troubles and drug use. U.S. agents say Mexico's drug cartels have similarly exploited the laws.

Story: ATF targets gun dealers to stem sales to Mexican cartels

In the cases announced Tuesday, officials said the alleged straw buyers managed to acquire the weapons — and pass federal background checks — without raising red flags despite the fact that in some cases they plunked down large sums of cash for multiple purchases of assault rifles. In one case, officials said, seven individuals spent $104,251 in cash at various Phoenix-area firearms dealers to acquire 140 firearms.

A federal indictment charges that some of the alleged gun traffickers would buy ten to twenty AK-47s per visit — sometimes just days apart and often from the same gun store, the Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, Ariz.

In one instance, according to the indictment, an alleged gun trafficker named Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta called the Lone Wolf gun store on Dec. 8, 2009, and asked how many AK-47s the store had in stock. Forty five minutes later, an alleged straw buyer and co-conspirator showed up at the store and bought 20 AK-47s, which he allegedly transported to an auto auction business in Phoenix and and then loaded into other vehicles.

Last Aug. 5, another defendant charged in the case bought 12 AK-47s from Lone Wolf that three days later were discovered concealed in a stove and a television in an attempt to smuggle them into Mexico at a border stop.

A clerk who answered the phone at the Lone Wolf gun shop Tuesday said he knew nothing about the charges against the store's former customers and referred any questions to Lone Wolf's owner, who was not available for comment. 

Many of the weapons purchased by the groups were AK-47s, which were banned under federal law in 1994, but became legal when the ban lapsed in 2004.

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In addition, officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the arrests point to the urgent need for White House approval of a federal rule they proposed last month that would require firearms dealers in four southwest border states — Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California — to report multiple sales of long guns.

Currently, firearms dealers must report to the ATF when a customer buys two or more handguns, but no such requirement exists for long guns such as AK-47s, which were described by officials as the "weapon of choice" for Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

ATF officials said such reporting would be an invaluable "intelligence tool" that would allow them identify potential straw buyers for the cartels.

But that proposal, which was published in Federal Register in December, has drawn angry protests from the National Rifle Association and firearms industry, whose spokesmen argue it would impose an unnecessary regulatory burden on the gun stores and potentially infringe on the Second Amendment rights of legitimate gun buyers.

When ATF acting director Ken Melson announced the proposal on Dec. 20, he said he expected it would be finalized and take effect in early January. But that has not happened, raising concerns within ATF that the gun lobby's opposition may have stalled it. A spokesman for the Justice Department did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

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Video: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

  1. Transcript of: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to our ongoing coverage of what we've been calling THE WAR NEXT DOOR , the deadly war being waged by Mexican drug cartels south of the US border. It's no secret the cartels' biggest drug market is here in the US, but it turns out most of the thousands of weapons used to fight the war, a huge arsenal, are also made on this side of the border in the US. NBC 's Mark Potter has been investigating this part of the story.

    MARK POTTER reporting: At a military base in Mexico City , soldiers use torches and hammers to destroy some of the 90,000 weapons the Mexican government says it has seized in the last four years, most from the vicious war with the drug cartels . In that war, Mexican authorities are often outgunned by drug traffickers armed with high-powered weapons . American firearms agents estimate that around 80 percent of those weapons are purchased in the US and are smuggled across the border into Mexico , where gun laws there make it much harder to buy weapons . To obtain weapons in the United States , the Mexican cartels often hire Americans with clean criminal records to buy the guns for them. They're called "straw buyers." Agents say most of the guns are bought over-the-counter in thousands of American gun shops or gun shows along the border and around the country. Under US law it is legal to sell these high-powered weapons , but it's illegal to buy them for someone else. In Oklahoma City , former state narcotics agent Francisco Reyes pleaded guilty to trafficking guns to Mexico . Prosecutors say one of his straw buyers was the late Kyle Wooten , a father of four in need of money who was paid to buy assault rifles.

    Ms. ROBIN TYLER (Kyle Wooten's Mother): Why would anyone need that many and give you cash?

    POTTER: Authorities say straw buyers come from all walks of life and are paid up to $200 per weapon.

    Mr. WILLIAM McMAHON (ATF Deputy Assistant Director of Field Operations): They're being taken advantage of by these cartels and really providing, you know, something that's going to be used to kill someone in Mexico .

    POTTER: US firearms agents say guns bought in a Houston case were found at several Mexican crime scenes, including this one known as the Acapulco Police Massacre , in which four officers and three secretaries were murdered.

    Offscreen Voice #1: Do you have the tag number?

    POTTER: They also say this surveillance video shows weapons being hidden in a warehouse near Fort Worth , Texas .

    Offscreen Voice #2: OK, they're unloading long boxes.

    POTTER: Weapons bound for Mexico to arm La Familia , a murderous drug cartel . To sneak them across the border, guns are usually hidden in cars and trucks.

    Mr. RICK SERRANO (ATF Supervisory Special Agent): They'll hide them in secret compartments, whether it's the spare tire, the gas tank, camper shells. They'll even build secret compartments to put them in there.

    POTTER: US officials say in the last four years they have seized more than 10,000 weapons headed for Mexico , and they're improving cooperation with Mexican firearms agents in tracing weapons there. But Mexican officials still urge the US to do much more to slow the weapons flow now known as the " Iron River ." Mark Potter , NBC News, Mexico City .

Photos: Mexico violence

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  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
    Above: Slideshow (26) Mexico violence
  2. BLOODSHED IN JUAREZ
    Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images
    Slideshow (15) Mexico under siege

Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape

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